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John Larroquette's crime spree continues this Sunday (8 p.m., pay cable) when he guest-stars as a murder defendant in the Showtime movie revival of "The Defenders."

Larroquette, who beat a murder rap on ABC's "The Practice" a few weeks ago, stars as Michael Lane, a father who pumps five bullets into the heart of a parolee who had raped and sodomized his 8-year-old daughter six years earlier.

The actor, who won a boatload of Emmys as Dan Fielding on "Night Court," is more likely to get a dramatic Emmy nomination for his "Practice" appearance, because he tends to overdo it a bit Sunday.

You can't blame Showtime for reviving "The Defenders," the courtroom drama from Reginald Rose ("12 Angry Men") about a father-and-son legal team (E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed) that aired on Saturday nights from 1961 through 1965.

The series has inspired several legal series since, with former NBC Chairman Grant Tinker advising Steven Bochco a quarter-century later that he wanted a similar law series. Bochco came up with "L.A. Law" and years later hired David E. Kelley to run it.

Kelley expanded on his "L.A. Law" experience to create "Picket Fences," "Chicago Hope," "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal."

Perhaps because of Larroquette's recent appearance on "The Practice," one can't help but wonder how the new "Defenders" episode would have improved with Kelley's words.

It's not that the movie -- titled "Payback -- isn't decent. Writers Andy Wolk and Peter Wolk have constructed a thought-provoking case about rehabilitation and retribution that undoubtedly will have viewers questioning what their own verdicts would be.

But at the same time, the courtroom drama and some of the dialogue seems a little creaky.

Marshall reprises his role as sage attorney Lawrence Preston. He isn't around to do much but give pep talks to his son, Don (Beau Bridges), the brother of Reed's character, Ken. Ken's daughter, Lawrence's granddaughter and Don's niece, Mary Jane Preston (Martha Plimpton), is around to play devil's advocate about the firm's decision to defend a vigilante who is proud to have killed his daughter's molester.

The prosecutor, Jackson (Mark Blum), wants Lane to have the best defense possible so he can sleep at night if he wins and puts away a man whose crime of revenge is certainly understandable.

That doesn't mean it isn't criminal, a point made by the dead man's angry widow, Julie (Roma Maffia).

This is the kind of complicated case with moral and ethical twists that Kelley routinely deals with in "The Practice" in 45 minutes.

"The Defenders" is twice as long, which has its good and bad points. To its credit, it enables viewers to understand the pain that caused a decent man like Lane to turn into a vigilante. His American dream of family life disintegrated when his daughter was molested and he wasn't strong enough to help his loved ones.

Meanwhile, the rapist was living an American dream right near the original crime scene until Lane's "Payback" destroyed the life of the convicted rapist's loved ones.

The movie plays like a pilot for a new TV series, with old issues in the Preston family dynamic laid on a bit too thick.

Don Preston apparently wants to defend Lane as payback for his failure to adequately defend another client. His niece, M.J., is so young that she doesn't realize how complicated things can be. Old man Lawrence just wants everyone to get along.

The resolution of the case seems to be a proper one, though there are some surprise courtroom moments near the end that seem more in keeping with "Perry Mason" than "The Defenders."

The scenes between Larroquette and the actresses playing his scarred children are the strongest.

But I'd be guilty of overstatement if I didn't say that overall the movie isn't as strong as most episodes of "The Practice," which has been getting surprisingly decent ratings on Saturday night.

Showtime has commissioned at least one more "Defenders" movie, which will star "NYPD Blue" actor James McDaniel. After that, the network would like to make three or so per year, but it will wait for the public's verdict first.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5.

Last Friday, TCI of Buffalo viewers were able to see the end of Pat LaFontaine's debut as a New York Ranger and a post-game interview he did with the Madison Square Garden Network. Of course, Rangers games are supposed to be blacked out by local cable systems to protect the Buffalo Sabres' TV market. A TCI official confirmed that carrying the Rangers game off MSG was a mistake that shouldn't happen again this season.

The battle of unbeaten Denver and New England on ABC's "Monday Night Football" had a much higher rating than the fifth game of baseball's American League playoffs between Cleveland and New York on Fox, 13.9 to 9.8. The baseball game started an hour earlier and ended at least 30 minutes before the football game, so it wasn't exactly a head-to-head battle. The rating of 23.7 between them is what ABC might have expected for Denver's victory in its most attractive game of the season so far.

"South Park," the adult cartoon that has become the highest-rated original Comedy Central series, has been renewed for 13 original episodes. They will begin airing in June 1998. The current batch of shows featuring Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman includes upcoming original episodes revolving around Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Haven't had enough of the Rolling Stones? The band will be showcased live on the premiere of MTV's "Live From the 10 Spot" at 10 p.m. Tuesday. MTV is one of the presenters of the Stones' tour, which stopped at Rich Stadium on Wednesday. Or is it Bills Stadium? That's what the public address announcer calls it on Sunday afternoons during the advisories about smoking being banned inside the stadium.

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